A New Natural World: Bhutanese Refugees Brave PA Weather

  • Megh and Dal Khandka help Jewish Family and Children Services intern Marie Gagnon cut plastic to cover the drafty windows. Photo: Ashley Murray

  • The Khadka family in snow just three months after they arrive in Pittsburgh from Nepa. Photo by Ashley Murray.

  • The Khadka family's children lived their entire lives in a refugee camp in Southeastern Nepal where the climate is tropical. The Western Pennsylvania snowstorms are new for the young girls.

  • Bhutan is in South Asia a country in South Asia bordered by China and India.

February 21, 2014
First published February 16, 2013

The Allegheny Front’s first story in our New Natural World series is about a Bhutanese refugee family of eight that's felt winter’s chill rather acutely and about some steps agencies take to keep new immigrants comfortable.

Refugees frequently find themselves in older housing stock—it’s all the newly-arrived can often afford.

“The importance of weatherization for a lot of our families is to really help them save money on their heating bills,” said Marie Gagnon, an intern at Jewish Family and Children’s Service

She makes sure that when families arrive, they’re prepared for western Pennsylvania weather.

“It’s a concept that is actually foreign to most Americans, not just refugees and immigrants.  And for many families, especially in the Pittsburgh area where homes aren’t as insulated or older, it’s really important that they learn how to protect and do the best they can.”

Gagnon recently showed a group of Bhutanese refugees how to weatherize their homes by placing plastic on the windows.

“Today we’re just going to talk about weatherizing your homes. Next what we’ll do is take the plastic and we’re going to measure it against the window,” said Gagnon as she instructs a group of Bhutanese refugees how to properly insulate their home.  “We want to make sure that we smooth out the sides,”

As Gagnon speaks, 24-year-old Megh Khadka holds the hair dryer to seal the plastic around the windows. The rest of the family--including a set of grandparents and toddlers, watch intently.

These refugees arrived from Bhutan, a country in South Asia bordered by China and India, just three months ago.

Megh and his family come from a line of Lhotsampas, or “people of the south”—ethnic Nepalese who settled Southern Bhutan in the late 1800s. 

In the 1980s, the Lhotsampas were pushed out of Southern Bhutan, becoming refugees.

Dal Poudel of Jewish Family and Children’s Service translates for Megh Khadka who spent most of his life in a refugee camp in tropical Nepal and explains the contrast to his new home.

“I was seeing the snow in a movie only.  When I was saw the snow here, I feel very surprised,” said Megh.  It was the same for his aunt Meena.

“Was this your first time seeing snow?” asked Gagnon.

“Yeah!" Megh said with a laugh.

“We see people coming in flip-flops, and we instantly get coats on them.  We try to get them shoes, but it’s sometimes a hard habit to break,” said Leslie Aizenman, from the from Jewish Family & Children’s Service.

Traditional wear for women in the region is a light lungi—something similar to a sari.  Even in Pittsburgh, the older generations still wear the outfits, but now under puffy winter coats. 

According to Vibrant Pittsburgh, a welcome center for immigrants and internationals, nearly 800 of the 1,000 refugees that arrived in the Greater Pittsburgh area since 2008 have been from Bhutan.

“While total numbers don’t compare to some cities like San Diego, it’s just the growth within our own city that’s been tremendous,” said Aizenman.